How to create a home office that works for you

While there’s lots of talk about the productivity of home working and new technology to track everything from the hours you’ve worked to your mental state, little has been said about the physical practicalities of turning over part of your home to workspace. So, what do people need to consider?

1. Carving out a working space

First, try and create a space that feels like an office, somewhere that says work and, if possible, is separate and clearly demarcated from the rest of the house.

“It’s all psychological,” says architect and author Sarah Susanka. “If you’re working out of your second bedroom, you feel like you’re camping.

“You have to build buffers and your environment needs to tell you: ‘This is where I’m working’. It doesn’t have to be expensive, but it does have to give you the cues that you are at work.”

Of course, if you’ve had home working thrust upon you, finding somewhere to set up in a cramped flat or shared house can be tricky. Yet there are ways of managing the situation.

If you do find you’re using the spare bedroom, says Susanka, think about replacing the divan with a futon or fold-up bed, something that takes away some of the temptation to grab a power nap before you’ve even started. If you are working at the kitchen table, clear it completely before you start and even think about moving it to a different position. Also play around with the lighting.

“Spatial separation is the most important issue when it comes to working from home, but also the one which people have least control over,” says Dr Frances Holliss, senior researcher at London Metropolitan University’s School of Architecture and author of Beyond Live/Work: the architecture of home-based work.

“People can make these small adjustments that then change the mindset and that helps them to switch off at the end of the day, too”

2. Getting the lighting just right

Next you need to think about lighting which, says Susanka, “needs to offer pools of warmth, with good task lighting for concentrated work and a warm glow for the space as a whole”.

If possible, try and find a space that offers some daylight too and a view out across the garden, or even on to the street, can help to lift the spirits. “Many of us, up until COVID, were working in little warrens of dark space with very little access to daylight and that throws off all our circadian rhythms,” says Susanka. “We feel tired a lot of the time and, although we’re probably overworking too, a big piece of it has to do with daylight.”

People also need to be aware where the light is coming from and how it lands on their computer, says interior designer Sarah Palmer-Granville, who believes that whether its natural or artificial light: “You need to get it right so you’ve not got glare on the screen and you’re not straining your eyes.”

And, in the age of the video call, being back lit is a big no-no. “Make sure the light is not behind you so your face is in shadow,” she advises. “If you can’t see somebody’s face clearly, it’s very difficult to read their body language.”

3. Silence is golden

Ideally, the home office should be as far away from sources of potential noise, such as children, dogs and doorbells, as possible, with a door that can be shut. “Try and get that double barrier between you and the rest of the house,” suggests Susanka. “You need to feel comfortable about having your business call without having kid noise in the background.”

However, such splendid isolation is a tall order for many of us. But there are options and Holliss recommends noise-cancelling headphones if you’re easily distracted by the neighbours. There is also a phone app that generates a gentle burble of white noise, an idea that is increasingly common in open-plan offices.

Of course, the reverse can also be true and some people find it very hard to deal with the silence of home working, when they’ve been used to working in a busy office. Thankfully, there’s an app for that too, which reproduces the general hubbub of a café.

4. Invest in the right tools of the trade

“If there’s one investment you should make, it’s a good chair,” says Nick Pollitt, managing director of DBI Furniture Solutions. “You’re not going to get any work done with your feet on the sofa or propped up in bed and of course that can have a detrimental impact on your posture and physical health, too. Sitting up straight and in the correct position will help prevent tiredness and sluggishness.”

Even if you do find yourself at the kitchen table, he says, a chair that’s adjustable, with a good back and lumbar support, will help you get into the correct position and height.

Employers have as much a duty of care to staff working from home as they do in an office and must ensure your work station meets health-and-safety requirements. Although the rules are slightly opaque, this could stretch to buying equipment for the home office.

“Lots of companies have been caught on the hop with this,” says Holliss, although not BT, who introduced the concept of the home-shored contact centre adviser several years ago. The company has a whole department dedicated to home working, with home visits to assess working environments and a standard home-working set-up with desk, chair, bin and light delivered straight to the home.

5. Creating a home office from scratch

For some, such as the business owner who has decided to run things from home, there is the option of creating an office from scratch, a whole new space ergonomically designed to meet specific needs. Spare rooms can be transformed, garages repurposed and new garden offices built amid the herbaceous borders.

“You have to make it so that it’s your workspace, and you have to create it with the same care and lay out as you do a kitchen,” says Susanka. “It’s very specific; it’s not like any of the other rooms in a normal house. It needs to be ergonomically organised into highly functional places and decorated with objects that inspire.”

Holliss believes such has been the shift towards home working, it might be time to rethink what we want in a new home and start to introduce flexible spaces, which can easily be transformed to offer privacy and that all-important barrier from the rest of the house.

“What’s been extraordinary about this coronavirus-related enforced home-based work is that the myth of it not being possible has been busted,” she says. “My research shows that most people like it because it gives them more control over their lives and most employers like it because their employees are more productive.

“Fundamentally, I think we need to start designing our buildings differently; home-based work is here to stay and I believe we need to change our built environment to accommodate it.”